Tuesday, July 28, 2015

High Summer Read-a-thon 2015 Wraps Up! #HSReadathon

I can't honestly say that I read more than I normally do last week, but I did have fun participating in Michelle's (True Book Addict) High Summer Read-a-Thon.

I read Andrea Camilleri's The Shape of Water, which is a police commissioner murder mystery set in Sicily.  Sicily is not on my itinerary for the trip to Italy this fall, but I enjoyed reading the mystery and especially loved looking up place names, recipes for dishes mentioned, and continuing to learn about the Mediterranean world.

After I finished The Shape of Water I dived right into Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes.  I have it marked on GoodReads as read, but I honestly don't think I've read it before because none of it is familiar.  Of course, if I did read it while I was pregnant or when my kids were infants or toddlers, that could account for my forgetting it.  I find those years to be quite blurry!

Musings aside, I am loving Under the Tuscan Sun--the house restoration is sort of the side story for me.  I'm loving the food and the flowers and the pace.  So ready to devote my summers to gardening, reading, and dreaming!  Mayes has several Tuscany-themed non-fiction books, so I may read more from her later this summer.

I'm still enjoying listening to Winston Graham's Demelza--book 2 in the Poldark Saga.  And, enjoying the min-series, but the pacing is driving me crazy.  They just cover the high points of the story and skip over what I think are key parts.

I'm eager to get back to Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, and another book arrived that I'm chomping on the bit to start, The Uncle from Rome, by Joseph Caldwell.  I read an excerpt from it in Italy in Mind, which is an anthology of Italy-themed writing, and was hooked.

Who says High Summer Read-a-Thon has to end?

Read on!

Monday, July 20, 2015

High Summer Read-a-Thon

I'm participating in my first official read-a-thon, though my family tells me my life is one big read-a-thon, but then it takes one to know one!

Michelle at The True Book Addict is hosting the High Summer Read-a-Thon.  And since I plan on reading all week, when I'm not working, gardening, or cooking anyway...here goes.

I've just started The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri as part of my Reading up on Italy project. It takes place on Sicily and is a murder mystery.

In the same vein, I'm also reading The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. Michelangelo is just heading back to Florence from Rome in order to win the commission to carve David. I am absolutely loving this book!

I'm also listening to Demelza, by Winston Graham, trying to keep ahead of the PBS/BBC mini-series currently airing. Loving it, just like I loved book one, Ross Poldark, in the series. If you haven't joined the blog tour for both books, check it out here...fabulous prizes at stake!

If I finish The Shape of Water this week, I'll most likely start The Italians by John Hooper although I hear Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes calling to me. Just rewatched the movie Saturday night and I'm not sure I have ever actually read the book.

Looking forward to hearing what fellow read-a-thoners are reading.

Read on!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

The problem with Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman is that it's just not a very good novel.  It's a rejected first novel, and that's exactly the way it reads.  It is jerky--the beginning is slow while we meet the main characters and fairly dull.  Even when Jean Louise Finch (i.e., Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird)  reminiscences about life when she and her brother Jem were young, I found myself yawning and itching to get to the main story.  

When Lee finally does get to the main story--that of Jean Louise's discovery that her father, Atticus Finch, and her beau Hank are anti-desegregation--the writing came alive, for awhile.  Her dialogue became sharp and her prose incisive.  However, Lee wasn't able to sustain her flashes of brilliance and the novel meandered as Jean Louise fell into stream-of-consciousness wrestling with her new reality and how to reconcile it with her memories of being raised by Atticus and their housekeeper, Calpurnia.

This is an ambitious story arc, and I think the editor who rejected Lee's manuscript was right.  To Kill a Mockingbird is a much tighter story, with clear cut villains and heroes and a moral center that is undeniable.  It's an easier story to tell and more suited to Lee's style as a writer.

I don't have a problem with the story of Go Set a Watchman--that of an idealist returning home to find her heroes have feet of clay and having to finally start to think for herself.  I just don't think Go Set a Watchman tells this story very well.  I never really believed that Atticus kept his racism completely hidden from Jean Louise her entire life.  How could she, who claimed to be "color blind," never have seen what her straight talking father believed?  It's not like she never returned home for visits.  

Despite it's problems, I want to reiterate that there is some powerful writing in Go Set a Watchman--the scene in which Jean Louise argues with Atticus is one of the saddest scenes I've ever read, but in the end, I just didn't believe it. Lee never made me believe that Jean Louise was duped by her own father.  And the first job of a writer is to make the reader believe that what he or she is saying is true, insofar as creating a believable world, no matter how fantastic or far-fetched it is.

Go Set a Watchman laid out the bones of a story that needed to be reworked and rewitten and revised and shaped and pruned, but it never was.  

While Lee developed To Kill a Mockingbird out of the backstory contained in Go Set a Watchman, it's too bad she didn't tackle the "you can't go home again" part of Go Set a Watchman and give us a novel that works.

The editor who rejected this novel all those years ago was right.  This novel wasn't ready for publication.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

David Copperfield

I'd been meaning to reread David Copperfield by Charles Dickens for several years now.  My enjoyment of Dickens novels has been rekindled after lying dormant for awhile, and having enjoyed Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son, all it took was catching sight of a read-along on GoodReads Pickwick Club group to get me all rev'ed up.

The read-along had a wonderful leisurely schedule (roughly 3 chapters a week), and I only fell behind a few times and was able to catch up quickly.

I think I prefer reading long novels in this way, which is very similar to the serialization format in which many of the novels of Dickens and his fellow Victorian authors were originally published.  You can really get to know the characters over a period of time, internalize their story, feel their pain or joy or hope or despair.  The goal is to experience the story not just rush on to the next book.

This was either my fourth or fifth time reading the book.  I know I read it at least twice as a teenager and at least once as an adult, but the last time was a good 25 years ago, so while I remembered most of the story arc and many of the characters, some of the side stories were fresh.

I also really enjoyed reading DC along with the Pickwick Club.  I believe they are reading all of the novels in order, and have now plunged on into Bleak House.  I just popped in for the DC read.  I learned so much from all the comments. My fellow readers did a lot of research that really enhanced the reading for me.  Info about the illustrations, including details about the painting and furnishings shown in the illustrations that pertain to the story, extracts from letters CD wrote to his friend John Forster during the writing of DC that detail his feelings about the story and the writing process, and interpretations of symbolism, patterns, and comparisons between the characters.

I really enjoyed comparing the different characters to each other with David as the center.

Various villains - compare Steerforth to Uriah Heep, one beautiful and one ugly, both contemptible in their absolute disregard for the feelings or welfare of anyone else.  And then compare both to Mr. Murdstone--he sort of is a combination of both Steerforth and Heep--at times attractive, at times ugly and forbidding, but always manipulative and cunning.

Parental figures - compare Clara, David's mother, and dead father, with Peggotty and Daniel Peggotty, the first of his several surrogate parents.  Other parents include the Micawbers, Aunt Betsey and Uncle Dick (as odd a pair as ever there was, but an effective partnership), and Mr. Wickfield and Agnes.  And then there's Mr. Spenlow and Dora's two aunts, and Mrs. Steerforth and her dead husband , whose scenario parallels David's parents but resulting in markedly different sons.

Heroines - there's Dora and Agnes, of course, but also Emily and Martha, two virtuous and two fallen wome, who exhibit various shades of helplessness and capability, who show contrasting states of being active and being passive.  And then there's Rosa Dartle.  She's as devoted to Steerforth as Agnes is to David, but Steerforth's selfish nature literally and figuratively disfigures Rosa.

Friends - Steerforth (again) and Traddles.  I never really thought much about Traddles before, but it struck me on this reading that he was most likely modeled after John Forster, Dickens's closest friend, confidant, and first biographer.  I imagine this never occurred to me before because it's only in the intervening years since my lasting reading of the book that I've read any bios of Dickens and learned about his friendship with Forster.

David Copperfield is a rich, deep book, a classic of the first order, and definitely my favorite Dickens novel.  I know that I'll be rereading it again someday as it is an immensely satisfying book to read, to discuss, and to think about.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787

I am so happy to be part of The Ross Poldark Blog Tour, and I'm reviewing the first book in Winston Graham's popular Poldark Saga, Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787.

Reading the first book in a series is sort of like a first date...you know there might be the potential for a long-term relationship (there are 12 books in the Poldark Saga!), but you don't want to commit before you know what you're getting into.

There's the initial attraction - I really enjoy historical fiction, and I'm intrigued by the setting: Cornwall, late 18th century.  And, I knew that BBC/PBS was airing a new mini-series adaptation this summer, and I'm a read-the-book first type-of girl, so I said 'Yes!"

All our friends say we are perfect for each other.  It's amazing how many of my reading friends whose taste I admire popped up to say how much they loved Captain Ross Poldark once the mini-series remake was announced.

There's the getting-to-know-you conversation--I admit I had a few second thoughts when the book opened with the deathbed scene of Ross's father, who is not a very likeable sort.  It's important to know what kind of a family Ross if from--an old family with a respectable name that is facing financial troubles--but I think the screenwriters were smart to skip the prologue and dive straight into Ross's service in the American Revolutionary War (on the side of the Redcoats, of course).

Once we got the backstory out of the way--Ross is heir to a crumbling estate, responsible for a motley crew of household workers and tenant laborers, was jilted by his sweetheart who married his cousin as soon as he returned home from America and the wars--I was hooked.

Ross is a hero without being a paragon of virtue, which makes him a perfect hero!.  He has a big heart, a strong sense of justice and fairness, but has a weakness for burying his troubles in a bottle and being jealous and moody and autocratic.  Thankfully for the plot, he also is usually socially blind, which means he gets entangled in situations that he should've foreseen but didn't.

Case in point, Ross rescues a young female waif, Demelza,  from village louts and an abusive father, takes her home and makes her his kitchen wench.  He cleans her up and makes her a general companion and helpmate, and then is surprised when his neighbors assume he is sleeping with her.

It's this naivete in the face of his military service and rough-and-tumble life that makes Ross so attractive as a main character.  He is just fun to read about.

I also enjoyed the rest of the characters and their stories and how they fit into the life of Ross, especially Demelza.  She is an absolute joy--I was thrilled to discover that book 2 in the series is called Demelza, which is a very good sign indeed.  She has grit and nerve and pluck, but is shy and tender and loyal.

I also loved the setting.  Everything I know about Cornwall, I've learned from Doc Martin and Daphne du Maurier.  So, it was interesting to learn about Cornwall's mining industry and the smuggling (some of which I knew from Frenchman's Creek) tradition.  I loved hearing the regional names and looking them up on Google maps.

As a fan of Jane Austen, it was also really interesting to read about the timeframe during which she was a child--the economic issues, the political issues, and the social issues that were causing the Old Regime to weaken and start to totter.

I am definitely reading book 2 in the series, and I expect you'll be seeing me review the entire Poldark Saga on this blog as time goes by.  I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!


If Jane Austen met Charlotte Bronte and they drank too much port, the Poldark Saga would be their literary love child.” — Poldarkian.com  

Captain Ross Poldark rides again in the new Sourcebooks Landmark tie-in editions of Ross Poldark and Demelza, the first two novels in the acclaimed Poldark Saga by Winston Graham, adapted into the inaugural season of the new Masterpiece Classic PBS’s series Poldark, airing June 21 – August 2 on PBS.

In celebration, July 6th through August 3rd, The Ross Poldark Blog Tour will visit thirty popular book blogs specializing in historical, romance and Austenesque fiction. Featuring spotlights, previews, excerpts and book reviews of these two acclaimed historical fiction novels, the tour will also offer readers a chance at a fabulous giveaway contest including copies of the books and a stunning Anglophile-themed prize package.

Grand Giveaway Contest

Win One of Three Fabulous Prizes

In celebration of the re-release of Ross Poldark and Demelza, Sourcebooks Landmark is offering three chances to win copies of the books or a grand prize, an Anglophile-themed gift package.

Two lucky winners will each receive one trade paperback copy of Ross Poldark and Demelza, and one grand prize winner will receive a prize package containing the following items:

(2 ) Old Britain Castles Pink Pottery Mugs by Johnson Brothers
(1) Twelve-inch Old Britain Castles Pink Pottery Platter by Johnson Brothers
(1) London Telephone Box Tin of Ahmad English Breakfast Tea
(1) Jar of Mrs. Bridges Marmalade
(1) Package of Duchy Originals Organic Oaten Biscuits
(2) Packets of Blue Boy Cornflower Seeds by Renee's Garden Heirloom 
(1) Trade Paperback Copies of Ross Poldark and Demelza, by Winston Graham

To enter the giveaway contest simply leave a comment on any or all of the blog stops (including this one!) on the Ross Poldark Blog Tour, July 6 - August 10. Winners will be drawn at random from all of the entrants and announced on the Buzz at Sourcebooks blog on August 13. 

Thanks for stopping by on the blog tour!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Once and Future King

T.H. White's The Once and Future King is supposed to be about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Merlyn and magic, hawks and heraldry, Lancelot and Guinevere, chivalry and Merry Olde England.  It is...but what it's really about is how to go on living in the world in which it was published, 1939.

It is about the tragedy of what happens when hate wins.  It's about jealousy and grudges and original sin.  It tries to explain how Hitler and fascism could take root and threaten to annihilate humankind and snuff out joy.

It's about doing your best, trying to think through insurmountable obstacles.  It's about ordinary people put in extraordinary positions and believing in justice and goodness despite all odds.

I've been reading it all during the month of June for the wonderful GoodReads group TuesBookTalk Read-a-Long.

Wikipedia says it was published as a collected work in 1958, with the composite books published earlier:

The Sword in the Stone - 1939, about the boy Wart, who was trained by Merlyn the magician and eventually pulled Excaliber from the stone in the village square, thereby proving that he was the rightful King of England.  This part totally reminded me of Harry Potter on multiple occasions.
The Queen of Air and Darkness - 1939, about the Orkney clan and their witchy mother Morgause, Arthur's half-sister and mother of Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, Gareth, and Arthur's son, Mordred.
The Ill-Made Knight - 1940, about the greatest, and ugliest, knight in the world, Lancelot and his misbegotten love affair with Arthur's wife, Guinevere.
The Candle in the Wind - 1958, about the civil war that destroyed Camelot and buried all the aspects of civilization that Arthur tried so hard to imprint upon his world.

One of the many things I enjoyed about it was the amalgamation of the various myths and legends of Arthurian Britain.  It is a collection of stories whose narrative thread transforms itself into a powerful tragic arc as the book unfolds.  I loved how the narrator remained firmly rooted in the 20th century and addressed his 20th century readers while discussing the various sources of the legends and the "imaginary" real historical figures such as William the Conqueror and Henry IV and how they fit into Arthurian legend.

Occasionally, I got a bit frustrated with the political rambling but then I think the book was, more than anything else, a coping mechanism for dealing with the mad, mad world of the 20th century.

It's definitely a book worth reading--it was immensely popular, touched a deep nerve, represented hope, attempted to explain evil, and wrapped all those feelings up in warm blanket of mythological familiarity, not just with Arthurian legend but Greek and Roman tragedy.

La Mort d'Arthur (The Death of King Arthur) by James Archer (1860)
I've been toying with the idea of classifying this book as a Classic.  I think it's in that category for me--it will be read and studied and enjoyed and discussed for a long time to come. It is well written.  It is of its time but timeless as well.  Thoughts?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

When In Rome

As part of my prep for my trip to Italy this fall, I read a wonderful little mystery, When in Rome, by Ngaio Marsh. First published in 1971, it is quite dated in some ways--no cell phones, being the main gadget missing from the character's lives, and a preponderance of 1960's era swinger slang--but in terms of atmosphere and geography and setting, it was perfect.

This is a Roderick Alleyn mystery--my first time meeting this suave British police detective--but I'm sure it won't be my last.  He is charming, clever, and fun to be around.

The setting is Rome, of course. Dame Ngaio Marsh has set her story in the Basilica of San Clemente, but changed the name. Not exactly sure why, but I loved looking up places that Alleyn and the other characters visit in the course of the novel.

In a nutshell, the story revolves around a murder that happens during a special tour of the basilica by a motley crew of mostly British tourists with a Dutch couple thrown into the mix, and it reminded me a lot of an Agatha Christie mystery.

I enjoyed the mystery--didn't figure it out but loved how it worked out in the end.  Adored the setting and now have the Basilica of San Clemente on my must-see list for Rome.

I can recommend When In Rome for mystery lovers, for those who are nostalgic for the 1960's and that "mod swinging scene," and for those who dream of visiting Rome and exploring the layers of history in the Eternal City.

Basilica of San Clemente

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

Readers tend to love bookstores as well as books about books.  Lewis Buzbee's The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is first and foremost a love story.  It is about reading, hanging out with readers, talking about books, learning about books, and generally living a book-based life.  On some level, my fellow bloggers, isn't that what we all aspire to?

I ended up tweeting about this book a lot as Buzbee knows how to turn a phrase.  Here's a selection of the quotes that I tweeted:

"Books are slow. They require time. They are written slowly, published slowly, and read slowly."
"From its inception, the English coffeehouse is one of the most innovative and democratic forums in Europe."
 "The difference between writers and authors, John Steinbeck once said, is that authors appear on the Today Show."
"The form and expense of the medieval book had as much to do with the shrinking tide of knowledge as with the church's censorship."
 "How do you press a wild flower into the pages of an e-book?"
"...complaining has never been a solid business plan."

I loved reading about the various bookstores that Buzbee has worked in.  I loved reading about the history of books--from the development of binding and paper to the itinerant bookseller to the marriage of the coffeehouse to the bookstore.  I enjoyed hearing Buzbee's optimism (in stark contrast to the usual gloom and doom stuff) regarding the future of reading, books, and readers.

I think the best thing about The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is the energy that Buzbee imparts--here is a fellow reader writing about something that defines him as a person, and that happens to be something I can relate to...the love of reading.

This is the book you want to give as a gift to other readers.  This is the book you want to take with you when you travel so that you can visit all the wonderful bookstores that Buzbee writes about.

All I can say is Read On!

Friday, June 05, 2015

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

In May, I read Harriet Reisen's excellent biography of Louisa May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, and have to say that of the three bios I have read of LMA, I think I enjoyed this one the most.

I began, knowing the story of LMA's life, feeling that old frustration with her father, A. Bronson Alcott.  In the other bios, Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson and Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante, Bronson is really portrayed unsympathetically as someone who simply would not rise up to his familial responsibilities and work to support his family regardless of his personal aspirations to be a thinking man.

Reisen, early in the book, suggests that Bronson suffered from a mental illness that prevented him from acting differently than he did.  I still found him frustrating and gritted my teeth when he scolded LMA for her shortcomings (in his eyes), but I found myself understanding him better and especially understanding better LMA's forgiveness and tenderness towards him as their lives drew to a close  For that alone, I am glad I read this book.

The other thing this bio gave me that the others did not was an appreciation for her other works (i.e., other than Little Women) and a desire to read some of her potboilers.  In fact, I just received a copy of Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, which is an anthology of some of the better sensationalist stories she published.  I've been mulling over what to read for the Back to the Classic challenge in the category of Forgotten Classic, and I think this should fit the bill nicely.

It makes sense that this bio would inspire me to read more of LMA's works as it does set out to tell the story of how Louey. as her mother called her, became a successful and renowned and beloved author.   I enjoyed reading the notes that LMA as an adult wrote in the margins of her own letters and journals and stories from her youth.  We are so lucky that even though she burnt a good deal of her personal writing, she kept much for posterity to study and enjoy.

I came away from this bio with a renewed admiration for LMA--her courage, her wit, her fortitude, and her talent.  She struggled with identity, but in the end, was able to accomplish what she set out for herself.  Truly a remarkable person.

Now I'm eager to watch the documentary, with the same name, that Reisen helped produce and wrote.  It features Jane Alexander as LMA.  Here she is during one of her runs, in which she tries to use up some excess energy.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Reading Guide to Italy

I've been talking about a leisure trip to Italy for years now, and it looks like this Fall I will actually succeed. I've been to Milan a few times on business, but I had zero sightseeing time, so it's almost as if I haven't really visited Italy yet.

Anyway, I really like to read books about places I visit, fiction and non-fiction, so I've been quietly ignoring my reading lists for 2015, and compiling an alternate list of what I hope to read before my big adventure.

I just read book #15 in the Guido Brunetti series by Donna Leon, set in Venice, and which I love, but I wanted a broader fare:
An Italian Education by Tim Parks
Christ Stopped At Eboli by Carlo Levi
Ratking by Michael Dibdin
When in Rome by Ngaio Marsh
Italy in Mind, an anthology of writings from Lord Byron to Edith Wharton to Susan Sontag
Vivaldi's Virgins, by Barbara Quick
The Man Who Became Caravaggio, by Peter Robb
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone (novel about Michelangelo)
The Italians, by John Hooper
The Shape of Water (Inspector Montalbano, Bk 1) by  Andrea CamilleriStephen Sartarelli (Translator)

I would like to reread Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann (one of my all-time favorite novellas), and something by Henry James (not The Aspern Papers, which I've already read and didn't care for).
I am totally open to other suggestions.  What evokes Italy, past and present, most for you?